Monday, August 30, 2010


Benji has a game he likes to play--it's called "play Thomas?" Here's what it sounds like:

(mommy typing furiously on her computer)

Ben: play Thomas, please? (big doe eyes)

Mommy: you want to play Thomas? (duh, dumbass)

Ben: (jumping up & down) Play Thomas! Play Thomas!

(mommy gets up to go arrange the track for Ben. She sets up the track and places a few cars on it. For a few minutes mommy & Benji play with the train cars, adding them on to one long train, watching them go through the tunnel. Then unexpectedly, Ben pulls up the track causing major derailments and proceeds to destroy the whole track system, leaving the train table in a post-Katrina-like shambles. Ben then runs out of the room.)

Mommy sighs and grabs a beer.

It's pretty much the same each time--a few variations mind you. Sometimes I pour a glass of wine. But I've noticed that Ben has this fixation to destroy the tracks each time he is "finished" with playing Thomas--and that my only function in this game is to set the stage for Godzilla to roll through.

So the other day, when Ben came to me asking to "play Thomas," I was a little peeved at the idea. Other moms may get this--the idea that I'm only here to serve meals and set up train tracks was beginning to grate. So this time I switched tracks, so to speak. When I went into his room, I told him that I wasn't going to set up the tracks, but that I would help him. Of course, I don't think he understood a word of that, but he did seem to understand that I wasn't setting up the tracks when he pushed one into my hand and I pushed it back to him. The usual whine/cry/shout fest began, but them I told him to put one down on the table, pointing to one piece of track already there. With a little fine motor wrestling, he attached the track piece. So I handed him another. And another. And suddenly a track was being created, with the pieces he wanted, going in the direction he wanted. My only job was to "help fix it" when we came to the closure and it needed some engineering with the last pieces. That track was his, and I think he knew it. It did not get torn up for the majority of the day--I think Godzilla or Mothra struck @ 4:48pm, but I did not personally witness the attack.

Later that night--after I filled Mr. Mommy in on the new plan of attack, Ben built an even more elaborate track with his daddy. (they usually play trains better than Ben and I do, so he was more willing to be patient and get help from daddy and resist his internal urge to destroy) That track was still standing 24 hours later. Hell, I think it's still standing now--only missing a bridge piece that frankly falls off if you just look at it wrong, so I'm not sure that counts. I'm not saying it won't fall before the day is over, but he seems to have taken some pride in that track.

What happened here wasn't just brilliant parenting on my part, but rather a type of therapy called "floortime." it involves getting down on the floor and playing with your kid. It's a little more work than that--but you get the picture. You play with your kid, looking for and creating opportunities for communication, letting them guide/rule the play. You play the way THEY want to play, not the way you want to, obstructing or guiding when they get too focused or inward. Now granted, he wanted me to set up the tracks, and i didn't--but this was the "obstruction" part of my play. It's not just about him being a play tyrant.

The method was developed by Stanley Greenspan in order to help kids on the spectrum and like conditions to learn to communicate effectively. What I love about it, other than the utter simplicity of it, is that it seems so positive. There are mental steps each kids has to meet, and once they are met, you move on to the next one. Kid is changing body language when you engage him? He's ready to start making eye contact and getting your attention. Kid is making eye contact and pointing? He's ready for closing conversation "circles" (back and forth conversation in its simplest form). Closing more than one circle? She's ready for more pretend play and emotional ideas. It is scaffolding at its very best. That's a fancy term that will be familiar to my teacher friends--its building upon what you have instead of bombarding them with what you know. Benji was obviously ready to move on to the next level--he knew how the tracks were built--having watched mommy create them, and he had also developed the finer motor skills to put them together. A little budge (or rather hard shove) from me, and he was on his way. When it comes to scaffolding, you can always spot the good teacher and therapist: they can do it effortlessly (or seemingly so).

For me, I will admit, floortime can be a struggle. Raised as an only child, and fairly a loner in all things, play doesn't involve a lot of speech for me. I can get down on the floor and play with Benji anytime, but it isn't always effective speech time. Sometimes we're just building Lincoln Logs (old school baby!) quietly, and sometimes we're just kicking a ball back and forth. I don't have a natural inspiration to turn this into a lesson for speech other than "don't hit the TV with the ball" . In this kind of activity, or anything creative, I'm not a chatty Cathy. In my own studio, whether alone or working with others, my workspace is generally quiet. I actually have to remind myself to turn on some music--it isn't a natural inclination to do so. Even at the bar, which is a social place by nature, I'm not the chatty one. I will respond to conversation--well, WORTHWILE conversation--but I rarely initiate it, except perhaps to shake my empty glass at the bartender. So to imbed speech into Ben's play isn't just work for him.

That being said, floortime is an awesome way to get to know your kid. When they aren't as communicative, it can be hard to get a grasp of who they really are, other than an occasional screaming pile of hair or banana chugging monster. But by getting down on the floor and playing the way THEY want to, you start to get a clear picture of the personality inside your offspring. And sometimes you need that change of perspective. As grown-ups, we tend to get comfortable in one world view--we own the world and control it--but how liberating it can be to see the world from a kid's point of view! Not worrying about cleaning up the latest spill, not thinking about bills to be paid and the TV fall line-up but instead marvelling in the mix of colors on the paper and hands, creating a scenario where trains knock down walls of pigs and chickens or feeling the joy of being surrounded by bubbles on a hot day. Floortime definitely takes you out of the mundane--something a lot of adults could use. Yeah--I'm talking to you miss "I can't stop talking on my phone while I drive and drink a soy latte."

If you think about it, it's kinda awesome. I have a legitimate and scientific reason to postpone my chores and play with my kid. You hear that, Laundry? Now, if only I had the same scientific backing for a daily cocktail...